On Monday, a report in this newspaper highlighted how, in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district, the COVID-19 crisis has laid low one of the main weapons in the country’s fight against malnutrition — the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme. Children of one of the most marginalised Dalit communities in Bihar, the Musahars, have taken to rag-picking after the scheme, which guaranteed them one stable meal a day, came to a standstill in March. The state government claims to have taken immediate corrective action. After being prodded by the National Human Rights Commission and the Patna High Court, which flagged this newspaper’s report, it has issued a statewide order to ensure distribution of rations to school children for three months and transfer of money to their bank accounts, or that of their guardians, in lieu of the food scheme. But is that enough, given that child health experts have questioned the efficacy of dry rations as a substitute for cooked meals? The case of the Musahar children of Bhagalpur should lead to conversations about food security for children from underprivileged communities across the country during the pandemic. With schools closed and anganwadi workers engaged in COVID surveillance work, there is a real danger that the nutrition of such children could be compromised.
Tamil Nadu was the first state to introduce the MDM scheme in the 1960s. The Central scheme to provide meals to school children began in 1995. However, initially, most states got away by providing dry rations. It took a Supreme Court order of 2001 for all states to introduce cooked meals. The order also specified that the meals should provide children with “at least 300 calories and 8-12 grams of protein each day of school for a minimum of 200 days in a year”. Since then, a large body of scholarly work has shown how hot, cooked food attracted students to schools and improved their nutritional status. Recognising the centrality of the MDM scheme in the food security of children, the SC alerted state governments at an early stage of the pandemic: “Non-supply of nutritional food to the children as well as lactating and nursing mothers may lead to large-scale malnourishment, particularly in rural and tribal areas.” Taking suo motu cognisance of the matter on March 18, the Court asked states to ensure that “schemes for nutritional food for children are not adversely affected”. Most states, including Bihar, responded by substituting MDM with dry rations. But such rations may not be sufficient.
The pandemic has led to widespread economic distress. In such times, the need to strengthen food security programmes cannot be overstated, especially in Bihar — amongst the worst performers on child nutrition. It, and other states, have much to learn from Kerala, which ensured that the MDM scheme remained operational during the pandemic. States should also heed the SC’s warning: “While dealing with one crisis, the situation may not lead to creation of another crisis.”
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